Eastern wahoo is a native shrub or small tree that grows in wooded areas, near streams, and in thickets. In fall, dainty pink or purplish four-lobed fruit capsules dangle from its branches.
Wahoo is usually a shrub but is sometimes a small tree to 25 feet, with spreading branches and an irregular crown.
The leaves are opposite, simple, 2–5 inches long, 1–2 inches wide, egg-shaped to broadest in the middle and tapering at both ends, tip pointed, base tapering sharply, margin finely toothed; bright green above; pale and hairy beneath; leaf stalk ½–1 inch long; leaves turn yellow in autumn.
The bark is smooth, thin, gray, with minute scales; the wood is almost white, tinged with yellow or orange, close-grained, heavy, hard, and tough.
The twigs are slender, somewhat 4-angled, purplish green, turning brownish later; the pores are pale and prominent.
Flowers April–June, in clusters of 7–15, from axils of leaves, stalks slender, 1–2 inches long; flowers about ½ inch wide, petals 4, spreading, purple; stamens 4, alternating with the petals and arising from the edge of the disk.
Fruits September–October, a capsule that is deeply 4-lobed, smooth, about ½ inch across, persistent into winter on long stalks, purple to rose-colored, splitting open to expose brown seeds about ¼ inch long enclosed by a scarlet seed covering.
- Strawberry bush (E. americanus) is a close relative that is rare in Missouri, occurring in southeast Missouri and north to the St. Louis area, in low, sandy woods along spring branches, low moist woods, moist wooded slopes of Crowley’s ridge, and moist stream banks. This Missouri native has attractive dark green leaves that remain on the branches long into autumn, and it bears unusual pin, warty fruit that opens to display colorful orange-red seeds. Much of its Missouri habitat has been destroyed, and like wahoo, it is a good choice as a native landscaping shrub.
- Burning bush (or winged euonymus, or winged spindle tree) (E. alatus) is a nonnative, invasive shrub that is widely planted as an ornamental. It has corky ridges (“wings”) along the twigs. Please do not plant it.
Habitat and Conservation
Wahoo is a relatively fast-growing, short-lived shrub to small tree. It’s a great choice for a native landscaping shrub. In addition to its attractive and interesting scarlet fruits, which are attractive to birds and other wildlife, the leaves also have good fall color. Often sprouting from the roots, wahoo can form loose clonal thickets. It can tolerate a variety of growing conditions, including being planted near black walnut trees, but it cannot tolerate poor drainage and wet soils.
Native Americans used powdered wahoo bark for tobacco and the wood for arrows. The name “wahoo” is Dakota for “arrow wood,” referring to the straight stems of the plant, which were used for arrows.
The bark, roots, seeds, and other parts of the plant have historically been used medicinally to treat a variety of ailments, but all parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested.
The fruit is eaten by a number of species of birds, including wild turkey. The leaves and stems are eaten by white-tailed deer and eastern cottontails.
A variety of insects are attracted to the flowers, including native bees, beetles, and flies. Some observers have noted that some of the flies most attracted to wahoo flowers are types that would also be attracted to carrion, and indeed, the flower color might be especially attractive on that count.
The caterpillars of a number of native moths eat the leaves of wahoo, including the small engrailed (a type of geometrid moth that is also called the saddleback looper), the American ermine moth, and the zigzag herpetogramma (one of the crambid snout moths). The black vine weevil, and some types of scale insects, also feed on wahoo.
The nonnative euonymus caterpillar moth, or spindle ermine (Yponomeuta cagnagella), has been introduced to North America from Europe. It is showing up in some U.S. states, primarily in the Great Lakes region. Its caterpillars live in colonies and can completely defoliate many plants in the genus, including our native wahoo as well as introduced euonymuses. At the height of their feeding, the caterpillars can completely enshroud a plant with their webbing, making them look like ghost trees. Repeated defoliations can weaken and potentially kill trees.
If you are doing landscaping, wahoo is an excellent replacement for the exotic invasive shrub variously called “burning bush,” “winged euonymus,” or “winged spindle tree” (Euonymus alatus), which is a noxious weed. The invasive burning bush has been extremely popular as a landscaping shrub for many years, especially for its bright red fall color. Birds, however, eat and distribute the seeds, and the plant becomes established in woodlands, forests, fields, and roadsides, where it forms dense thickets, outcompeting native plants.